Lingering Gothic: 14th and 15th Centuries

Venice Blossoms

Adam and Eve, Palazzo Ducale

Continued from Veneto Byzantine art

In many ways this was the most exciting and vigorous phase in Italian art, an age of discovery when the power of the artist was almost like that of a magician. Great imaginative leaps occurred in architecture, painting and sculpture, especially in Tuscany.

Nor was it long before Tuscan masters introduced the new style to the Veneto. In Padua’s Cappella degli Scrovegni (1308, Giotto used all he knew about intuitive perspective, composition and a new, more natural way to render figures in natural settings. It was revolutionary in its day, the masterpiece of an artist who inspired the first painters of the Renaissance.

But the Venetians didn’t want to know. Although Byzantine influences lingered into the 14th century, Venice by that time was ready to go Gothic in its half-oriental, flamboyant way. The once-stiff Byzantine figures cautiously begin to sway in dance-like movements, including the famous Salome mosaic in St Mark’s Baptistry (1340s) and the marble statues on the basilica’s rood screen, by Jacobello and Pier Paolo dalle Masegne (1394).

The real break with the past came with the completion of the Palazzo Ducale, decorated with exquisite sculptural groups, pointed arches, capitals and lacy Gothic tracery that had nothing to do with Byzantium.

Venetian architecture in that period had more openwork than anywhere else – walls were built to define voids as well as solids: the Ca’ d’Oro (1420–40s) by Giovanni Bon is the most effervescent example. Bon, with his son Bartolomeo, also designed the Porta della Carta (1430s), the grand entrance to the Doge’s Palace and the flowery pride of Venice’s late Gothic period.

The religious revivals of the 14th century saw in Venice the building of two giant brick Gothic churches to hold the crowds – Santi Giovanni e Paolo and the Frari. This being Italy, the architects were not interested in towering verticals but in creating immense spaces; this being Venice, there was always the danger of such large structures shifting on their foundations, no matter how many piles were driven into the slime.

One of the distinctive features of Venetian Gothic was the use of tie beams to add support to their aisles and arches. Another danger was weight, but Venice was able to draw upon the experience and talents of its Arsenal shipwrights: many smaller churches, such as Santo Stefano and San Giacomo dell’Orio, were given lightweight wooden ship’s keel roofs in the 1300s. Paintings of Venice from the following century, notably Gentile Bellini's Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo show richly coloured Gothic facades and the giant funnel chimney pots that once dominated the rooftops.

Miracle of the Cross by Gentile Bellini, detail

In painting, not only Giotto’s innovations but also the more natural style of the Palazzo Ducale sculptors were ignored. The first Venetian painter to make a name for himself was Paolo Veneziano, who flourished in the 1330s: although still heavily Byzantine, his delight in brilliant colour was a harbinger of the Venetian school. In the 1350s, Lorenzo Veneziano (no relation) took another step away from Byzantium with his graceful line and soft shading to suggest three dimensions.

But the strongest influence on local painters was the colourful, fairy-tale style called International Gothic. Two of its greatest masters, Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello, painted frescoes (now lost) in the Palazzo Ducale at the beginning of the 15th century; you can see the highly decorative gilded panels by their Venetian followers (most notably Jacobello del Fiore and his pupil Michele Giambono) in the Accademia.

International Gothic continued to have its adherents long into the 15th century thanks to the glowing polyptychs of Antonio Vivarini, founder of a dynasty of painters from Murano.

Next: the Early Renaissance

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